Former SC Chief Justice, lawyers group bucked foreign ownership in telco

Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and a lawyers’ group warned of violation of the Constitution and national security risk if Congress enacts law to remove telcos as a public utility open to foreign control.

Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio (JOHN JEROME GANZON)

 “The Supreme Court is supreme because it's the final interpreter of words and phrases in the constitution. But if Congress will pass a law interpreting and redefining these terms and phrases you are taking away the power of the Supreme Court. This is a battle of turf between the Congress and the Supreme Court. It is the Supreme Court that will decide and the they will also decide that Congress cannot reserve the power of the Supreme Court and to be the final arbiter of interpreting the constitution,” Carpio emphasized this during a webinar of the Philippine Bar Association.

Carpio raised this on the potential risk of Chinese ownership of third TELCO DITO. He said that Chinese law is mandating all Chinese companies, as citizens, to disclose to their intelligence services any information required by the intelligence service. “That is a problem that the Philippines is allowing ChinaTel to install telecom equipment in military camps and the fact that we have a conflict with China,” he said.

“China is stealing territories such as the West Philippine sea and our maritime zones. We do not have that problem with Globe, PLDT, or with the Indonesians because we do not have territorial disputes with them. So, this is unique to DITO and ChinaTel. We have to be very careful because we are fighting to preserve our territorial maritime zones in the West Philippine sea and China is encroaching on our territory maritime zones,” Carpio said.

According to Carpio, the problem of telcos is the they do have enough towers because of difficulties of getting permits from the local government units. But, he stressed this has been addressed under Bayanihan Act 2 where ,all permits have been suspended except for the building permits. This means, telcos need only one permit which is good for three years.

“There is this window of opportunity. They can build all the towers that they want now and that will solve the problem of speed and availability of boundaries,” he said.

In the same webinar, Prof. Dindo Manhit, President of Stratbase ADR Institute said that the top priority must be the building of a robust and nationwide digital infrastructure that all sectors now realize as a critical service that must be accessible to all Filipinos.

He said that the sudden shift to cloud-based technologies for communications and economic activities will need strategic partnerships between the private sector and government and will be instrumental in recovering from this economic crisis.

“A conducive policy environment that inspires confidence and boosts competitiveness will attract the right kind of investors who have the resources and technology to create long term positive impact to our economy and create the millions of jobs that our people need,” Manhit said.

The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) reported that 23 tower companies have been granted provisional certificates to participate in its accelerated tower program.

The DICT said that the country needs over 50,000 towers to improve mobile connectivity in the whole country. Permitting timelines have also been limited to two weeks by drastic reforms in the permitting process.

In a separate statement, a group of lawyers  raised serious concern calling for the reconsideration of government's decision to allow China-backed DITO cell sites in Philippine military camps.

Atty. Marlon Tonson of the lawyers group Tagapagtanggol ng Watawat pointed out the potential risk in a proposed provision in the Public Service Act to remove telecommunications as a public utility allowing majority ownership of foreigners.

“Our constitution did in fact say that telecommunications is public utility and that the 60/40 percent  ownership restriction is appropriate,” Tonson said.

He emphasized that, “If you look at the constitution, the provision on telecommunications as public utility and the 60/40 rule pertains to how the constitution cannot be changed by mere act of Congress.”

“One of those rights you can find in (the Constitution) Article 16 Section 10 mandates the regulatory environment for communication structures.

The interesting thing about this provision is that it’s a mandate that requires government to set up a regulatory system for the emergence of communication structures that would help Filipino capability,” said Tonson.

Meanwhile, the Democracy Watch Philippines also released a statement calling on Filipinos to be aware of the risks presented by a telco firm backed by a Chinese state-owned corporation.

Paco Pangalangan, executive director of Democracy Watch Philippines, said that expansion of the digital infrastructure should also mean upholding the rule of law. “Instead of weaponizing the law to threaten existing Telcos one day, then to benefit a preferred foreign-backed telco on another, the government should instead prioritize removing the bureaucratic barriers that have slowed down the expansion of digital infrastructures needed to improve digital infrastructure and services,” Pangalangan said.

DITO Telecommunity is a consortium of Udenna Corporation owned by Davao businessman Dennis Uy, subsidiary Chelsea Logistics Corporation, and Chinese state-owned China Telecommunications Corporation, the parent company of China Telecom.

Pangalangan pointed out that Dennis Uy, a known supporter and campaign funder of President Duterte, controls 60 percent of DITO. His Udenna conglomerate is partnering with several Chinese state firms in big energy and construction projects. One of which, China Communications Construction Co (CCCC) is blacklisted by the US for participation in the building of missile capable facilities in an artificial island in the South China Sea. CCCC subsidiary China Harbour Engineering Company got initial approval for a reclamation project in Manila Bay worth $1.2 billion, according to media reports.